The Science Behind How Opioids Affect the Human Brain

Did you know that in 2015 more than 52,000 Americans died of drug overdoses? Approximately 33,000 of these were from opioids, according to the CDC. This includes prescription painkillers and heroin.

But while almost everyone has heard about opioids, not many know how they affect the human brain.

And of this reason, we’re shedding some insight on how they affect the brain, and how their abuse became pandemic.

Read on!

how opioids affect the human brain

Some Basic Facts About Opioids

When you get a headache, you probably reach for an aspirin or ibuprofen. These belong to a class of drugs known as NSAIDs or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Opioids are also a class of medicines that relieve pain. Some examples include morphine and codeine. Heroin has no acceptable medical use in the United states and is roughly 2 to 3 times more potent than morphine.

Humans make natural opiate-like molecules, which attach to special receptors in the brain. These molecules send signals that block pain, slow breathing, and calm the body down, especially during times of stress.

But, in cases of extreme pain or severe depression, natural opioids aren’t as effective. This is why many turn to synthetic opioid drugs. Taking opioids reduces the perception of pain by overwhelming the brain’s reward system with dopamine.

The Science Behind Opioid Addiction

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in brain regions that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and the feeling of pleasure.

Taking opioids increases the amount of dopamine in the brain’s limbic reward system. This dopamine overload produces euphoric effects. People who abuse drugs seek to recreate this rush again and again.

This is how our brain works. Life-sustaining activities become associated with pleasure or reward. Whenever you get a jolt of pleasure while eating or exercising, this is why.

Opioids activate the same reward circuit. A brain on opioids notes that this action is pleasurable and should, thus, be repeated.

Opioid Withdrawal

Withdrawal is one of the reasons why one can’t just go cold turkey on opioids. Repeated use and increasing dosages of opioids alter the brain so much. Without them, neurons will release excessive amounts of noradrenaline (NA).

NA is also a neurotransmitter produced in the brain and peripheral nervous system. Arousal and regulation of blood pressure, as well as sleep and mood, are due to NA.

Excess NA will trigger withdrawal symptoms including jitters, anxiety, muscle cramps, and diarrhea.

Helping Opioid Addicts

Naloxone is a popular treatment for overdose. It works by pushing opiates off brain receptors for 20 to 90 minutes. That is plenty of time for the victim to regain consciousness.

There are also drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine. These make it easier for addicts to avoid the physical symptoms of withdrawal.

Medical interventions are just one part of the solution. Prescott House Addiction Treatment Program, for example, follows the principle that recovery is a process involving the mind, body, and spirit.

Medications must be used together with appropriate psychosocial treatments to be effective. Not all addicts are the same. One’s treatment plan should be based on an individual’s unique situation.

When it comes to recovery, there is really no singular path that everyone must follow.


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